For him, NBA is new world

Having conquered Europe, ex-Terp Jasikevicius moves on to Pacers

October 31, 2005|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

Indianapolis -- As he finished an interview one morning last week at Conseco Fieldhouse, Sarunas Jasikevicius excused himself politely. The whirlpool awaited, and Jasikevicius was in a bit of a hurry to get there ahead of his new teammates with the Indiana Pacers.

"Before the veterans," he said with a smirk.

Four months shy of his 30th birthday, Jasikevicius is quickly learning the rules of being an NBA rookie. With the Pacers, it also means carrying the bags of the veterans off the team bus before games and bringing them doughnuts before practice.

In the case of Jasikevicius, who played four years in relative anonymity at the University of Maryland before becoming a huge star in Europe and Israel, most here are hoping the 6-foot-4 guard makes most of his rookie mistakes off the court and not on it.

Signed to a three-year, $9 million contract last summer, Jasikevicius will back up starting point guard Jamaal Tinsley and shooting guard Stephen Jackson, providing some of the long-range shooting void left by the retirement of longtime Pacers star Reggie Miller.

Returning to the role of newcomer is a welcome relief for Jasikevicius.

"This is a new experience for me," Jasikevicius said. "Nobody really knows me here, which is great; I like it. In Europe, I was getting too much attention sometimes. I'm enjoying it, to tell you the truth. What I'm not enjoying is that I have to get to understand everything from the beginning."

Part of fitting in with his new team is showing a different personality than the one he exhibited overseas.

"I don't want to change, but there's a lot more I could get away with in Europe," Jasikevicius said. "I was well-respected, and I could get away with more with the referees. Here, I am going to have to tone down my act a little bit. But as a point guard, I still must be vocal and make sure everything is in order."

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who along with basketball operations president Larry Bird actively pursued Jasikevicius, said there will be a period of adjustment. But after seeing Jasikevicius play in training camp and eight exhibition games, Carlisle sounds confident of a fairly seamless transition.

"He's made daily improvements in terms of his familiarity with the NBA game, which we knew he would," Carlisle said. "Offensively, he's a brilliant player, and defensively, he's learning some things about the league and about our system. He's a guy who's going to find a way to be successful; that's been his career."

Champion in Europe

Starting his pro career in his native Lithuania after leaving College Park in 1998, Jasikevicius evolved into the best point guard and one of the most respected players in Europe. In the past three years, he led his teams to the Euroleague championship and was named Most Valuable Player in the 2005 Euroleague Finals.

Before being forced to leave F.C. Barcelona for Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv two years ago after a coaching change, Jasikevicius figured he would finish his career in Spain. He was making a reported $2 million a year - tax free - and was so popular that his picture made its way onto billboards.

"I thought it was never meant to be with the NBA, because the times I wanted to come, nobody was interested, and the times I was under contract with no NBA out [clause], there were always teams popping over," Jasikevicius said.

It wasn't until the 2000 Olympics, when he scored 27 points for Lithuania in a semifinal loss to the United States, that those outside of Europe noticed. Even after he scored 28 points in helping upset the Americans at the Olympics last summer, Jasikevicius joked that the NBA wasn't interested in a "slow, fat, old, white guy."

Jasikevicius was wrong.

Not only did the Pacers make their pitch, sending Bird for a recruiting dinner to Tel Aviv, but the Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers made offers, too. The Jazz reportedly threw the most money at Jasikevicius, and the Cavaliers tried to lure him with the idea of playing with good friend and countryman Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

But the Pacers chased Jasikevicius (pronounced ya-sa-KEV-uh-shiss) as a college team does a top recruit. Aside from Bird's trip, Carlisle called him more than a dozen times and had the team's star, Jermaine O'Neal, telephone a player most of the Pacers had hardly heard of before last summer's Olympics.

"Me and Rick developed a very good relationship over the phone. That was a huge reason why I came here, because it was just really nice that a coach of his kind of caliber would have such an interest," Jasikevicius said.

`Shivers' with Bird

Of the visit by the legendary Bird, Jasikevicius said: "It was really great. I had a lot of fun. Obviously, I had shivers. But at the same time, it had to be a good decision for me to come to Indiana, Larry Bird or no Larry Bird."

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